My sister and I went to see a restaging and modernization of the venerable Rogers and Hammerstein's “Oklahoma!” at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. It opens with the end of a barn, as seen from the inside, with a small window up on the peak with a patch of blue, blue sky with summer clouds in it - so dramatic and so beautiful. Stage design by Matthew Smucker really carried the illusion of being on the mid-America high plains. The sets were uncomplicated and full of unpainted wood, or wood in need of paint. Set in the early part of the 20th century before Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the story shows plain, hard working people, who love to get together and kick up their heels to sing and dance. My mother told us stories of traveling 40 miles to go to a dance when she was growing up in South Dakota.
When the very competent orchestra starts the overture, I get the ususal sappy grin on my face that stays there for the whole production. When Curly (Eric Antrim) begins singing, “Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh, what a beautiful day!” I know we are in for a beautiful ride on the high plains.
The singing was wonderful. All the voices are really fine. Anne Allgood did a surberb job of showing the no nonsense ethic that characterized the all the farmers and cowboys. Even the tortured Jud(Kyle Scatliffe) was a hard and competent worker and his anguish and longing was palpable in his singing and dancing. Donald Byrd's choreography was high stepping and joyful and the dream ballet was mesmerizing and an effective, very disciplined foil for the heel kicking.
Laurey (Alexandra Zorn) is the object of Curly’s desire, but she suffers from a surging and retreating quest for romantic love and, though she surely finds Curly attractive, she doesn’t want to reward his presumption by saying yes too soon.
Curley just wants to get married. Curly’s a cowman, riding, roping, chasing down lost cattle, and Laurey is the niece of Aunt Eller (Anne Allgood) a good natured, plain speaking, hard working, no-nonsense farm woman.
Aunt Eller’s hired man, Jud Fry (Kyle Scatliffe), also wants Laurey to love him. His pent up rage and jealousy are near to driving him crazy. He menaces Laurey and Curly, implying violence if he doesn’t get what he wants. He’s lived a hard life and it has destroyed any fine perception of other people’s intentions. Jud lives in the smokehouse, where the wall boards are not snug up together. He does have a little pot bellied stove, but you can almost feel the icy wind of upcoming winter whistling through.
One of the most engaging characters is Ado Annie Carnes (Kristen deLohr Helland). She grew up being unattractive to boys, but since she “rounded out”, her words, she’s on hormone overdrive and easily distracted by any male attention. She loves Will Parker (Matt Owen) but if she’s “not near the one she loves, she loves the one that’s near.”
On his route through the area is the farm to farm, house to house, Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Daniel C. Levine). Ali meets Ado Annie on his route, and ever the salesmen, he inadvertently convinces the mistaken Ado Annie that he wants to marry her. She is an innocent and has no perception that men may use women. (Don’t forget her forgetfulness about Will when he’s not near.) Of course, Ali has no intention of marrying anyone. He just likes a pretty, compliant girl and the freedom of the open road.
Of course, the real stars of the production are Rogers and Hammerstein’s lovely, familiar songs and the dance numbers choreographed by Tony-nominated Donald Byrd, Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theatre. An artistic partnership between Spectrum and the 5th Avenue engendered the update of “Oklahoma”. The dream ballet with m Laurey (Kara Walsh), Curly (Josh Spell) and Jud (Donald Jones Jr.) was magical and poignant.
The multicultural cast of actors and dancers set the stage for a more realistic picture of Oklahoma before it became a state. According to the program, “… from 1865 to 1920, African Americans created more than 50 identifiable towns and settlements in Oklahoma, some of which still exist today.” Fascinating stuff, and in fact, there was some talk of creating a black state from the Oklahoma Territory; although, after statehood, the legislature passed its own version of Jim Crow laws.
Also upcoming March 16 and 17 is a Washington State high school student production of "Oklahoma" on the 5th Avenue stage. It features a cast, crew, orchestra and support team of high school students. There are so many talented young people in our area, this should be fun to see a slightly different interpretation.
“Oklahoma!” runs through March 4, so there’s still time to see this vision of an earlier America, beautifully presented. For tickets or more information, go online at www.5thavenue.org or call the box office at 206-625-1900.